The Millions Quiz: The Glaring Gap

January 29, 2009 | 15 books mentioned 38 6 min read

So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.

Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?

coverEdan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!

Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.

coverAndrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.

Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.

I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.

More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).

Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.

coverEmily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’sA Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

No thank you.

Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.

coverGarth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.

Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.

coverKevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.

coverMax: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).

So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?

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38 comments:

  1. This is a good topic. I'll have to think about it and will post a response on my blog in the next few days.

  2. As Harold Bloom once said, with so many books available these day, far more "classics" than can be read in a lifetime, the question is not what to read, but what *not* to read. Emily approached it best by making a conscious decision not to read an entire class of authors. I like that approach, but it takes knowing oneself. Another way to look at it is, reading is a zero sum game, choosing one book means another book will go unread – time is limited.

  3. Edan's gaps sound a lot like mine.

    Emily, drop the uber-feminism and read some good books.

    Kevin, If you don't live long enough to read Don Juan don't sweat it…I wasn't that impressed.

    Max, Try As I Lay Dying and War and Peace…You-can-do-it!

  4. Emily, I understand your lack of interest in the "burly-man authors", but I think you should make an exception with David Foster Wallace. His empathy muscle is strong enough to cross gender divides. If you do decide to give it a try, read "Little Expressionless Animals" from Girl With Curious Hair first. Its a good (I think) example of his abilities.

    PS. Has anyone at themillions actually finished Infinite Jest?

  5. This post actually made me feel better about my reading holes. I've certainly read a lot less than the authors, but I've read a few things they've missed as well. (Lolita, Wuthering Heights)

    I agree that there are too many classics and no reason to waste time reading books that don't grab you — perhaps with exceptions for the pinnacle works (that's probably the English-major in me talking)

    If there's a class of writers I've cut out, it's the Greeks. I just have never been able to get into them, although I am working on Gilgamesh and Beowulf (Not the same era, but still old)

    Thanks for a great post!

  6. Edan– The only Highsmith novel that I've read has been The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it isn't "scary" at all. Sure, you squirm through the entire thing, but you're definitely not going to pee on yourself in fright. Give it a try. ;)

    Emily– I hear you on the chauvinist thing. That's the reason I've never felt interested in picking up Roth. I also remember when I first picked up The Crying of Lot 49 and saw that there was a female protagonist. It's sad that something like that should be such a surprise. I guess I'm not used to books with female protagonists that aren't named after them. (On the bookshelf in front of me, out of about 50 novels I see only 5 books with female protagonists, and 3 of them have her name in the title; one uses 'she'.)

    I'll post my own gaping holes on my blog.

  7. Please.

    It's either David Foster Wallace or Wallace. Or David Wallace or Dave Wallace. Or even Dave. I can't figure out why people insist upon referring to him as "Foster Wallace."

    Does anyone refer to William Howard Taft as Howard Taft? William Henry Harrison as Henry Harrison? Lee Harvey Oswald as Harvey Oswald? Luis Borges? Wayne Bobbitt?

  8. I am delighted to have impressed, irritated, and even bored our readers. I remain unrepentant in my tastes.

    The only thing I could possibly repent is calling David Foster Wallace "Foster Wallace"–if it is proved that Foster belongs to his first name rather than his last, I will never do it again.

  9. http://droberts.wordpress.com/2008/09/20/yet-another-embarrassing-grammatical-error-from-a-prominent-news-outlet/

    As you can see, it's a common mistake (and a mistake loathed by his devoted fans). Foster was his mother's maiden (she took his father's last name) and his middle name. His books were released under David Foster Wallace at the suggestion of his agent. It is not a hyphenated name.

    As for being unrepentant in your taste, how is it your taste if you've never even sampled what you are declaiming?

    And that BR Myers article is perhaps one of the most short-sighted, unfortunate literary articles I've ever read. Such a shame that you would let it so strongly influence your "taste."

  10. Like Emily, I find that excerpt from All the Pretty Horses enough to scare me off McCarthy, if not forever, at least for a long time. As Anon @ 10:20 remarks, reading is a zero-sum game in both the short and long term, so while I have both a personal and a professional investment in the value of reaching outside one's comfort zone at regular intervals (after all, you might be surprised, and you'll certainly learn something, about books and about yourself)–still, it seems fair enough to avoid something your evidence so far suggests will be wholly alienating.

    Like Kevin and Max, I feel the modernists are a glaring absence in my own reading. I keep trying, and don't mean to give up. I have an intuition that one day Mrs Dalloway will be one of my great reading experiences. So far, I've read the first paragraph. Often.

    I'll write up some more literary confessions at my own blog.

    BTW, I assume you know the game 'Humiliation' played in David Lodge's Changing Places? In it, English professors "win" by coming up with the most outrageous gap in their reading–the one who hasn't read Hamlet wins the game but (unconnected, of course…) loses his job, as I recall.

  11. From the point of view of someone approacing 60, I must say that I suspect from most writers of my generation, Emily sounds… well, I'd rather not say what I'm thinking, but it probably shows what a stupid old fart I am to think, well, that her post reflects very badly upon her.

    Clearly, there are generational differences. I grew up in a different time, when we didn't read contemporary authors in school, even in undergraduate classes. We also were exposed to be a big range of authors.

    In tenth and elevents grades, for example, I recall reading a book of six plays by Racine and Corneille; Juan Ramon Jimenez's "Platero y Yo"; two novels by Sir Walter Scott; Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth"; Wharton's "Ethan Frome"; Fielding's "Tom Jones"; Cather's "The Professor's House"; Defoe's "Moll Flanders"; Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"; Buck's "The Good Earth"; Galsworthy's "The Man of Property"; and other books that were then considered classics but probably are on few school reading lists today. It was on my own that I discovered Vonnegut, Pynchon, Salinger's stories, Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Mary McCarthy, Malamud, Styron, Welty, Edmund Wilson, Barth, Bruce Jay Friedman, et al.

    I went to a very low-prestige M.A. program in English (at Richmond College, CUNY) and for my comps I had to get through a reading list of 100 books from the ancient Greeks and Romans through medieval times ("Sir Gawain and the Green Knight") to Europeans of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century (Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"; Diderot's "Rameau's Nephew"; Stendhal, Balzac, Turgenev, Zamyatin, Goncharov, Moravia, Mann, and other writers that were considered important.

    On the other hand, I can't recall any Latin American literature (I did read Borges, Cortazar, Machado de Assis, Sarduy, Bioy-Casares, and more in my MFA program a year later) or African literature other than Paton's "Cry the Beloved Country" or Asian literature other than "The Tale of Gengi." The most "contemporary" of the writers in my 1974 comprehensive exam were probably the writers Emily refuses to read.

    You can't read everything. Like the great Updike, I feel most stupid for never having read "Tristram Shandy." And I don't blame Emily for anything but what seems mulishness.

    But some people are simply narrow-minded and not open to new (or old) ideas.

  12. One other thing: as someone who in just the past six years has taught both "To the Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway" a total of six times to high school seniors and college freshmen, it's disappointing to read of some of "The Millions" not being able to get more than a few pages into them. I guess you guys would have to resort to SparkNotes if you were so unlucky has to be in my classes.

  13. Well, Richard, Kevin and I may have not had much luck with Woolf thus far, but I suspect there are a few among The Millions who have read plenty of Woolf.

    In addition, while I'm enjoying this comment thread quite a lot, the point of this exercise was not simply to open ourselves up to criticism (though we are tough enough to take it). What would be the point of that?

    We settled on this topic to let you all know us better, to learn more about you, and to underscore the inherent variability of taste and experience in any group of avid readers. That variability is what makes something like The Millions worthwhile, right?

  14. the point of this exercise was not simply to open ourselves up to criticism

    Yes, that would be a discouraging result. For all the things the posters honestly admit not having read, I'm sure there are many more they have read, after all.

  15. I think the topic is a fun idea, as I often think about my own gaps–to the point where I've tried to fill some of them recently. To the extent that you are sheepishly revealing the gaps in your literary education, it seems to be in good fun, I just took exception to Emily's dismissal of a wide range of authors–having admittedly never read any of them–based on her own half-baked misconceptions and one forgettable and short-sighted magazine article.

  16. FWIW, my most shameful gaps are probably The Divine Comedy, Faust, Lost Illusions, The Red and the Black, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Gravity's Rainbow (one false start), The Recognitions (one false start), In Search of Lost Time.

    I have recently tried to make a dent in the list, knocking off Crime and Punishment, 100 Years of Solitude, Midnight's Children, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Trial, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Still have a long way to go.

  17. Dear Richard and Samizdat,

    Life is short and books are many–we must choose somehow. I know that R.B. Meyers is either beloved or hated and it seems we fall into opposite camps on his incisiveness as a critic. I am not much for contemporary fiction in general, with a few exceptions. I am more a literary historian and more at home in the literature of 17th and 18th century England than that of America today. I make exceptions, but have not been moved to for the authors I mentioned.

    In the parlance of my own beloved 18th century, I am an Ancient and you are Moderns. Your responses put me in mind of Alexander Pope's Dunciad–if Samizdat, particularly, were to write the poem anew for our own age perhaps I (rather than Colley Cibber) would be elected King of the Dunces?

    Ever (and still unrepentantly), Emily ("half-baked", "…", "misconceiving", "uberfeminist" that I am)

    de gustibus non disputandem est.

  18. this is great.

    i'm ashamed that i've never touched the following:

    faulkner (and I OWN three of his books).

    joyce

    virginia wolff

    the greek classics

    updike

    proust

    moby dick, don quixote

    i should stop there. i've always loved tolsoy, however. and recently, saramago. steinbeck. camus. roth.

  19. I think these kinds of lists give us good ideas about what to read; they lead us in different directions where we might have forgotten the way. I hope nobody takes it seriously because there is no such thing as a "gap" in reading unless one doesn't read. The art of reading is an individual path; it can't be scripted. It's not a recipe or a test. It's a stroll through history and time.

  20. I'd like to make a plug for women–feminist or not–to read strong male authors. I did this for a while–avoided the "Great Male Narcissists," as DFW called them. To my great loss. McCarthy, Delillo, Hemingway (!) (my God–Emily!), even James Salter's "A Sport and a Pastime" surprised me. I mean, don't read "the biggies" just because they're the biggies, but don't avoid burly-man writing out of hand; there is such beautiful, sad, deep work among them.

    I must must must make time for "War & Peace."

  21. Addendum to above: I just finished "Mrs. Dalloway," the audio book. I have confronted several start-stop books this way with great success. Some books may be better received aurally, for whatever reason. Of course, the quality of the reading is everything. I recommend listening while doing something else–walking, doing dishes, driving, etc.–for optimal receptivity. Somehow, seizure of one side of your brain makes fertile the other side.

  22. Virginia Woolf, War and Peace, The Waste Land, Infinite Jest, Updike, and Proust are my gaps that I intend to fill (and I would have had the same list six months ago or two years ago, so recent deaths have no bearing on the list). I soothe the pain of those gaps by knowing that I have read almost all of Faulkner, the Bible and the Koran, Joyce, Moby Dick, most of the bard, Dante, Catullus, and even Boccaccio (though I probably can't spell any better for having read them). It's all a trade-off that I am alright with (as Emily seems to be). There's no need to feel too bad about NOT having read something unless you are going to feel equally as happy about things you HAVE read. In other words, I only get blamed for not reading X if I get credit for having read Y. And in the end, I decide that I'm ahead.

  23. I don't think anyone should be criticized for books or authors they haven't been able to crack or haven't got around to yet because even the most tireless reader has items that fall into those areas. However, to dismiss an entire category or group of authors just based on an uneducated perception of what their books must be like, excerpts, or other people's opinions seems very strange and incurious to me.

  24. i also think this is a great topic for discussion as our modern age offers up so many good books. but what dissapointed me was not which books weren't read, but the reasons they weren't. it seems that most just "didn't get that into it", or "didn't think they'd like it" based upon a page or two. most of the books i haven't read – and there's been alot of them – has been because i haven't had the time to get to them, not because i just disregard them. i'm not a huge fan of victorian novels – and i haven't read many – but i certainly plan on reading them one day. finding reasons to not read large segments of modern literature might make you feel better, but in the end you should give them a shot.

  25. While I think that most people would explicitly agree with Anon 1/31/8.40 pm that to do as I have done–"to dismiss an entire category or group of authors just based on an uneducated perception of what their books must be like, excerpts, or other people's opinions" is naughty and a little dubious ("very strange and incurious to me" as Anon puts it), I believe that I'm hardly alone in writing off or avoiding certain authors. I believe that many others–perhaps others who have chastised me vehemently for my approach–who do just the same. The difference is, I chose to make explicit and defend a tacit pattern in my reading. None of us has enough time to read everything we ought to and whether we are explicit and unapologetic about the things we avoid–choose to embrace how we've been reading all along–or not, I'm willing to bet that I'm hardly alone. What I think some people forget when they insist that I *must* or *should* give the authors I've avoided a chance is that I would do so at the expense of another book, a book I might be genuinely and strongly drawn to. (Again, I insist that the human life span is not long enough to read all that one would like, or all that one should.)

    What I ask, and what all of the "naughty girl, eat your vegetables!" comments have failed to do, is make me want to read any of the authors I've named. Just because I am incurious about a certain class of authors, does not mean that I am incurious. It just means that my curiosity has not been drawn to burly man authors and I chose to embrace my tastes, rather than apologize for them.

  26. Emily, right on. You don't have to defend your choice not to read those authors. They're exactly the same authors I would put on my humiliation list, too, and I run a perfectly pompous literary blog quite well without them, thank you very much. I read Crying of Lot 49 in college and that was enough Pynchon for me. There's so much I haven't read in the areas that actually interest me to spend my time ploughing through Gravity's Rainbow.

  27. Like Garth, I want to go back to school to cover the Ancient Classics. Platos "Apology" and "Gorgias" are the only ones I have read in full. Saragamo is really, really good. I suggest his novel "Blindness" for starters.

    Sometimes I wonder just how many female writers the big male writers like Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, and Cormac McCarthy have read. I feel like David Foster Wallace has read many considering his rip on Updike for

  28. Well, I've read Woolf, Faulkner, Henry James, Shakespeare, and the Russian novels, Anna Karenina, the Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace; however, I have never read Don Quixote or Moby Dick, so they are both on my list this year. I periodically try to tackle Proust – then give up. Then there's also the problem of the new translations – many of those Russian novels I read back in the late 1970s have new translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky that I want to read.

  29. I agree that confronting a book through an audio version – or even a movie – can help. I didn't fully appreciate "The Color Purple" until I saw the movie and as for Joyce and Woolf, audio versions made me pick up those books I'd put down years ago and finally read them. I, too, had a problem with McCarthy until I read "Blood Meridian," one of his earlier books. If you like Faulkner, you'll enjoy McCarthy.

  30. Let's just go with things I actually own that I've never gotten around to, otherwise I could be here all day:

    Orwell's 1984; any Vonnegut or Faulkner (I own a couple of books by each); The Awakening by Kate Chopin; Origin of Species; plenty of Shakespeare, though I have read quite a few of the plays; any Voltaire aside from Candide; The Grapes of Wrath; A Room of One's Own and To the Lighthouse, and The Ambassadors by Henry James has remained partially read for over a year now, though I have read Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers. I don't think I ever made it through Portrait of a Lady. I've also never read any Philip Roth, though the only book of his I own is The Plot Against America.

  31. What a shame that “EDITOR” (or the real author of the post) keeps calling DFW “Foster Wallace.” The Millions continually strives to be recognized as a serious literary outlet, well bungling this guy’s name isn’t gonna help your reputation. FOSTER is his middle name, it’s not a hyphen name. Jesus.

    Click the blogpost Samizdat linked to. Come on, guys.

  32. And “Emily” you embarrass yourself here. Are you an actual editor for the Millions? But you have NEVER read Hemingway, Roth, Updike, McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, or DFW?

    It’s inexcusable. And your brazen defense– “I won’t apologize… give me clarity and precision” (as if Roth and Updike lack those things?) is a nice thought but just comes off as silly and childish.

    And you think PG WODEHOUSE is better than the literary behemoths you proudly ignore? Puh-lease.

  33. Andrew– Read Moby-Dick, it’s worth it. You’d think it’s big and boring, but it’s exciting and funny.

  34. If you must be ignorant, at least be proud! Emily’s happy disregard for 20th century literature (nicely summed up in that list: Hemingway, Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon) speaks such volumes. Any serious reader does so in order to expand one’s mind, not reaffirm her own insecurities.

    God I loathe Generation X.

  35. Boiling last century down to Roth
    Speaks to your abject mental sloth.
    “Be proud,” you say–“be proud”–but why
    Encourage someone’s mind to die?

    Yes, Generation X *is* slime.
    But why’d you bring them up this time?

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